World Hunger And The War In Ukraine

Vijay Prashad

On Monday, June 17, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesperson for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, announced, “The Black Sea agreements are no longer in effect.” This was a blunt statement to suspend the Black Sea Grain Initiative that emerged out of intense negotiations in the hours after Russian forces entered Ukraine in February 2022. The Initiative went into effect on July 22, 2022, after Russian and Ukrainian officials signed it in Istanbul in the presence of the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Guterres called the Initiative a “beacon of hope” for two reasons. First, it is remarkable to have an agreement of this kind between belligerents in an ongoing war. Second, Russia and Ukraine are major producers of wheat, barley, maize, rapeseed and rapeseed oil, sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, as well as nitrogen, potassic, and phosphorus fertilizer, accounting for twelve percent of calories traded. Disruption of supply from Russia and Ukraine, it was felt by a range of international organizations, would have a catastrophic impact on world food markets and on hunger. As Western—largely U.S., UK, and European—sanctions increased against Russia, the feasibility of the deal began to diminish. It was suspended several times during the past year. In March 2023, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova responding to the sanctions against Russian agriculture, said, “[The main] parameters provided for in the [grain] deal do not work.”

Financialization Leads to Hunger
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that his country regrets Russia’s “continued weaponization of food” since this “harms millions of vulnerable people around the world.” Indeed, the timing of the suspension could not be worse. A United Nations report, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2023” (July 12, 2023), shows that one in ten people in the world struggles with hunger and that 3.1 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet. But the report itself makes an interesting point: that the war in Ukraine has driven 23 million people into hunger, a number that pales in comparison to the other drivers of hunger—such as the impact of commercialized food markets and the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2011 report from World Development Movement called “Broken Markets: How Financial Market Regulation Can Help Prevent Another Global Food Crisis” showed that “financial speculators now dominate the [food] market, holding over 60 percent of some markets compared to 12 percent 15 years ago.”

The situation has since worsened. Dr. Sophie van Huellen, who studies financial speculation in food markets, pointed out in late 2022 that while there are indeed food shortages, “the current food crisis is a price crisis, rather than a supply crisis.” The end of the Black Sea Grain Initiative is indeed regrettable, but it is not the leading cause of hunger in the world. The leading cause—as even the European Economic and Social Committee agrees—is financial speculation in food markets.

Why Did Russia Suspend the Initiative?
To monitor the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the United Nations set up a Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) in Istanbul. It is staffed by representatives from Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Nations. On several occasions, the JCC had to deal with tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the shipments, such as when Ukraine attacked Russia’s Black Sea Fleet—some of whose vessels carried the grain—in Sevastopol, Crimea, in October 2022. Tensions remained over the initiative as Western sanctions against Russia tightened, making it difficult for Russia to export its own agricultural products into the world market.

Russia put three requirements on the table to the United Nations regarding its own agricultural system. First, the Russian government asked that the Russian Agricultural Bank—the premier credit and trade bank for Russian agriculture—be reconnected to the SWIFT system, from which it had been cut off by the European Union’s sixth package of sanctions in June 2022. A Turkish banker told TASS that there is the possibility that the European Union could “issue a general license to the Russian Agricultural Bank” and that the Bank “has the opportunity to use JP Morgan to conduct transactions in U.S. dollars” as long as the exporters being paid for were part of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Second, from the first discussions about the Grain Initiative, Moscow put on the table its export of ammonia fertilizer from Russia both through the port of Odesa and of supplies held in Latvia and the Netherlands. A central part of the debate has been the reopening of the Togliatti-Odesa pipeline, the world’s longest ammonia pipeline. In July 2022, the UN and Russia signed an agreement that would facilitate the sale of Russian ammonia on the world market. The UN’s Guterres went to the Security Council to announce, “We are doing everything possible to… ease the serious fertilizer market crunch that is already affecting farming in West Africa and elsewhere. If the fertilizer market is not stabilized, next year could bring a food supply crisis. Simply put, the world may run out of food.” On June 8, 2023, Ukrainian forces blew up a section of the Togliatti-Odesa pipeline in Kharkiv, increasing the tension over this dispute. Other than the Black Sea ports, Russia has no other safe way to export its ammonia-based fertilizers.

Third, Russia’s agricultural sector faces challenges from a lack of ability to import machinery and spare parts, and Russian ships are not able to buy insurance or enter many foreign ports. Despite the “carve-outs” in Western sanctions for agriculture, sanctions on firms and individuals have debilitated Russia’s agricultural sector.

To counter Western sanctions, Russia placed restrictions on the export of fertilizer and agricultural products. These restrictions included the ban on the export of certain goods (such as temporary bans of wheat exports to the Eurasian Economic Union), the increase of licensing requirements (including for compound fertilizers, requirements set in place before the war), and the increase of export taxes. These Russian moves come alongside strategic direct sales to countries, such as India, which will re-export to other countries.

In late July, St. Petersburg will host the Second Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum, where these topics will surely be front and center. Ahead of the summit, President Putin called South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa to inform him about the problems faced by Russia in exporting its food and fertilizers to the African continent. “The deal’s main goal,” he said of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, was “to supply grain to countries in need, including those on the African continent, has not been implemented.”

It is likely that the Black Sea Grain Initiative will restart within the month. Earlier suspensions have not lasted longer than a few weeks. But this time, it is not clear if the West will give Russia any relief on its ability to export its own agricultural products. Certainly, the suspension will impact millions of people around the world who struggle with endemic hunger. Billions of others who are hungry because of financial speculation in food markets are not impacted directly by these developments.

Author Bio:

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.


Bookmark and Share

Why Capitalism Is Leaving The U.S., In Search Of Profit

Richard D. Wolff

Early U.S. capitalism was centered in New England. After some time, the pursuit of profit led many capitalists to leave that area and move production to New York and the mid-Atlantic states. Much of New England was left with abandoned factory buildings and depressed towns evident to this day. Eventually employers moved again, abandoning New York and the mid-Atlantic for the Midwest. The same story kept repeating as capitalism’s center relocated to the Far West, the South, and the Southwest. Descriptive terms like “Rust Belt,” “deindustrialization,” and “manufacturing desert” increasingly applied to ever more portions of U.S. capitalism.

So long as capitalism’s movements stayed mostly within the U.S., the alarms raised by its abandoned victims remained regional, not becoming a national issue yet. Over recent decades, however, many capitalists have moved production facilities and investments outside the U.S., relocating them to other countries, especially to China. Ongoing controversies and alarms surround this capitalist exodus. Even the celebrated hi-tech sectors, arguably U.S. capitalism’s only remaining robust center, have invested heavily elsewhere.

Since the 1970s, wages were far lower abroad and markets were growing faster there too. Ever more U.S. capitalists had to leave or risk losing their competitive edge over those capitalists (European and Japanese, as well as U.S.) who had left earlier for China and were showing stunningly improved profit rates. Beyond China, other Asian, South American, and African countries also provided incentives of low wages and growing markets, which eventually drew U.S. capitalists and others to move investments there.

Profits from those capitalists’ movements stimulated more movements. Rising profits flowed back to rally U.S. stock markets and produced great gains in income and wealth. That chiefly benefited the already rich corporate shareholders and top corporate executives. They in turn promoted and funded ideological claims that capitalism’s abandonment of the U.S. was actually a great gain for U.S. society as a whole. Those claims, categorized under the headings of “neoliberalism” and “globalization” served neatly to hide or obscure one key fact: higher profits mainly for the richest few was the chief goal and the result of capitalists abandoning the U.S.

Neoliberalism was a new version of an old economic theory that justified capitalists’ “free choices” as the necessary means to achieve optimal efficiency for entire economies. According to the neoliberal view, governments should minimize any regulation or other interference in capitalists’ profit-driven decisions. Neoliberalism celebrated “globalization,” its preferred name for capitalists’ choosing to specifically move production overseas. That “free choice” was said to enable “more efficient” production of goods and services because capitalists could tap globally sourced resources. The point and punchline flowing from exaltations of neoliberalism, capitalists’ free choices, and globalization were that all citizens benefited when capitalism moved on. Excepting a few dissenters (including some unions), politicians, mass media, and academicians largely joined the intense cheerleading for capitalism’s neoliberal globalization.

The economic consequences of capitalism’s profit-driven movement out of its old centers (Western Europe, North America, and Japan) brought capitalism there to its current crisis. First, real wages stagnated in the old centers. Employers who could export jobs (especially in manufacturing) did so. Employers who could not (especially in service sectors) automated them. As U.S. job opportunities stopped rising, so did wages. Since globalization and automation boosted corporate profits and stock markets while wages stagnated, capitalism’s old centers exhibited extreme widening of income and wealth gaps. Deepening social divisions followed and culminated in capitalism’s crisis now.

Second, unlike many other poor countries, China possessed the ideology and organization to make sure that investments made by capitalists served China’s own development plan and economic strategy. China required the sharing of incoming capitalists’ advanced technologies (in exchange for those capitalists’ access to low-wage Chinese labor and rapidly expanding Chinese markets). The capitalists entering the Beijing markets were also required to facilitate partnerships between Chinese producers and distribution channels in their home countries. China’s strategy to prioritize exports meant that it needed to secure access to distribution systems (and thus distribution networks controlled by capitalists) in its targeted markets. Mutually profitable partnerships developed between China and global distributors such as Walmart.

Beijing’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” included a powerful development-focused political party and state. Conjointly they supervised and controlled an economy that mixed private with state capitalism. In that model private employers and state employers each direct masses of employees in their respective enterprises. Both sets of employers function subject to the strategic interventions of a party and government determined to achieve its economic goals. As a result of how it defined and operated its socialism, China’s economy gained more (especially in GDP growth) from neoliberal globalization than Western Europe, North America, and Japan did. China grew fast enough to compete now with capitalism’s old centers. The decline of the U.S. within a changing world economy has contributed to the crisis of U.S. capitalism. For the U.S. empire that arose out of World War II, China and its BRICS allies represent its first serious, sustained economic challenge. The official U.S. reaction to these changes so far has been a mix of resentment, provocation, and denial. Those are neither solutions to the crisis nor successful adjustments to a changed reality.

Third, the Ukraine war has exposed key effects of capitalism’s geographic movements and the accelerated economic decline of the U.S. relative to the economic rise of China. Thus the U.S.-led sanctions war against Russia has failed to crush the ruble or collapse the Russian economy. That failure has followed in good part because Russia obtained crucial support from the alliances (BRICS) already built around China. Those alliances, enriched by both foreign and domestic capitalists’ investments, especially in China and India, provided alternative markets when sanctions closed off Western markets to Russian exports.

Earlier income and wealth gaps in the U.S., worsened by the export and automation of high-paying jobs, undermined the economic basis of that “vast middle class” that so many employees believed themselves to be part of. Over recent decades, workers who expected to enjoy “the American dream” found that increased costs of goods and services led to the dream being beyond their reach. Their children, especially those forced to borrow for college, found themselves in a similar situation or in a worse one. Resistances of all sorts arose (unionization drives, strikes, left and right “populisms”) as working-class living conditions kept deteriorating. Making matters worse, mass media celebrated the stupefying wealth of those few who profited most from neoliberal globalization. In the U.S., phenomena like former President Donald Trump, Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders, white supremacy, unionization, strikes, explicit anti-capitalism, “culture” wars, and frequently bizarre political extremism reflect deepening social divisions. Many in the U.S. feel betrayed after being abandoned by capitalism. Their differing explanations for the betrayal exacerbate the widely held sense of crisis in the nation.

Capitalism’s global relocation helped raise the total GDP of the BRICS nations (China + allies) well above that of the G7 (U.S. + allies). For all the countries of the Global South, their appeals for development assistance can now be directed to two possible respondents (China and the U.S.), not just the one in the West. When Chinese entities invest in Africa, of course their investments are structured to help both donors and recipients. Whether the relationship between them is imperialist or not depends on the specifics of the relationship, and its balance of net gains. Those gains for the BRICS will likely be substantial. Russia’s adjustment to Ukraine-related sanctions against it not only led it to lean more on BRICS but likewise intensified the economic interactions among BRICS members. Existing economic links and conjoint projects among them grew. New ones are fast emerging. Unsurprisingly, additional countries in the Global South have recently requested BRICS membership.

Capitalism has moved on, abandoning its old centers and thereby pushing its problems and divisions to crisis levels. Because profits still flow back to the old centers, those there gathering the profits delude their countries and themselves into thinking all is well in and for global capitalism. Because those profits sharply aggravate economic inequalities, social crises there deepen. For example, the wave of labor militancy sweeping across nearly all U.S. industries reflects anger and resentment against those inequalities. The hysterical scapegoating of various minorities by right-wing demagogues and movements is another reflection of the worsening difficulties. Yet another is the growing realization that the problem, at its root, is the capitalist system. All of these are components of today’s crisis.

Even in capitalism’s new dynamic centers, a critical socialist question returns to agitate people’s minds. Is the new centers’ organization of workplaces—retaining the old capitalist model of employers vs. employees in both private and state enterprises—desirable or sustainable? Is it acceptable for a small group, employers, exclusively and unaccountably to make most key workplace decisions (what, where, and how to produce and what to do with the profits)? That is clearly undemocratic. Employees in capitalism’s new centers already question the system; some have begun to challenge and move against it. Where those new centers celebrate some variety of socialism, employees will more likely (and sooner) resist subordination to the residues of capitalism in their workplaces.

Author Bio:

Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a visiting professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University, in New York. Wolff’s weekly show, “Economic Update,” is syndicated by more than 100 radio stations and goes to 55 million TV receivers via Free Speech TV. His three recent books with Democracy at Work are The Sickness Is the System: When Capitalism Fails to Save Us From Pandemics or Itself, Understanding Socialism, and Understanding Marxism, the latter of which is now available in a newly released 2021 hardcover edition with a new introduction by the author.

Independent Media Institute

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Bookmark and Share

Is The US Dollar On The Verge Of Being Dethroned As The World’s Currency?

Gerald Epstein is Professor of Economics and a founding Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Gerald Epstein looks at how the loss of the dollar’s reserve currency status could impact the U.S. and world economy.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, and especially after Washington imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow, a number of countries across the world — including Brazil, China, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Africa — have been pushing back against the hegemony of the U.S. dollar in the global economy. As this de-dollarization movement picks up steam we are forced to ask: Is the U.S. dollar’s dominance under threat? Would ending the U.S. dollar hegemony benefit the world?

Progressive economist Gerald Epstein sheds light on the de-dollarization debate in this exclusive interview for Truthout. He explains the role the dollar plays as an international currency in maintaining U.S. global hegemony, discusses how imperialism helps to boost the currency role of the dollar, and analyzes whether de-dollarization is really happening and how the loss of the dollar’s reserve currency status could affect both the U.S. and the world economy. Epstein is professor and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and author of a forthcoming book from the University of California Press titled, Busting the Bankers’ Club: Finance for the Rest of Us.

C.J. Polychroniou: The U.S. dollar has been the world’s principal reserve currency since the end of World War II thanks to an agreement reached by the U.S. and its allies at Bretton Woods in 1944 to create an international currency exchange regime in which the dollar was pegged to gold. The U.S. unilaterally severed the links between the dollar and gold in 1971, effectively ending the Bretton Woods system, but the dollar still remains the international reserve currency, though non-dollar reserve currencies have increased substantially over the past 10 to 15 years. What is the actual role of the dollar as the primary reserve currency for the global economy?

Gerald Epstein: The U.S. dollar is the dominant “international money” used in much of the world. It has held sway since at least the end of the Second World War and probably a bit before. First, I should explain the roles that “international money” plays.

Like “domestic money” — the good ‘ole U.S. dollar used in the U.S., for example — international money serves in several different roles. It serves as a “medium of exchange” in everyday transactions; that is, you use it when you buy a piece of pizza or a new car. A second role is as a “store of value” to keep some of your savings in. For example, if you have a piggy bank, you most likely have dollar bills or coins in it. Third, it is used as a “unit of account”; that is, the units in which prices are announced. For example, we are using the dollar as a unit of account when we say: “this banana costs 1 dollar and 75 cents,” or “this house costs 1 million and 750 thousand dollars,” or “I owe 25 thousand dollars in student loans that I still must pay because of the Supreme Court.” International money is also used as a “means of payment”; that is, it is used to service and repay debts.

nternational money also has some important additional roles that domestic money does not serve. The most important are: as an “intervention currency,” which is when it is used by central banks to buy and sell international currencies in order to affect their international exchange rate (for example, when the Mexican central bank buys Mexican pesos with U.S. dollars in order to prop up the value of the peso relative to the dollar); and as an “anchor currency,” which is when a country wants to tie the value of its currency to the value of another currency (for example, when Namibia wants to keep its currency value equal to the South African rand). Relatedly, most central banks hold “reserves” (foreign exchange reserves) consisting of foreign currencies, and in some cases gold, in order to intervene in the currency markets and to have foreign currencies to pay for imports and service foreign loans, when needed.

The U.S. dollar plays a dominant role in many of these uses as international money in many parts of the world. The degree to which it plays these roles vary by role, by geographical area and over time. But, overall, there is no other currency that plays as many roles in as many places as the U.S. dollar. Because of this dominance, the U.S. dollar is often referred to as the international “key currency.”

But the U.S. dollar is not the only currency that plays these roles. The most important among the latter include the euro, the British pound, the Japanese yen, the Swiss franc, and in some parts of the world, the Chinese renminbi.

Note how few currencies play these roles. Most countries’ currencies play almost no role as an international currency. For example, most countries cannot even borrow on international capital markets in their own currencies. When Ecuador borrows from foreign banks, the loans are denominated in dollars or euros, for example. When Ecuador has to repay its loan, it has to have enough dollars to do so. When the United States borrows from Saudi Arabia, it just has to pay back in dollars, a currency that the U.S. prints. Easy, peasy.

So, while much is made of the difference between the “key currency” (the U.S. dollar) and everyone else, perhaps a more important demarcation of inequality and hierarchy in the world is between so-called hard currencies (currencies that also serve as international money) and soft currencies (currencies that do not serve as international money). Soft currency countries are at a grave disadvantage because they must acquire hard currencies in order to survive in the global economy.

Now I can give some quantitative historical perspective on this.

In 1950, the U.S. produced 62 percent of world manufacturing output. In 1975, almost 80 percent of official foreign exchange reserves in the world were held in dollars, and the U.S. accounted for 43 percent of the world manufacturing output. By 2022, the U.S. accounted for less than 20 percent of world manufacturing output — about 22 percent of world GDP. But 60 percent of the world’s official international reserves were still being held in the U.S. dollar. Read more

Bookmark and Share

The Impact Of Plastic On Human Health

We know that plastic is choking the planet. But it could be killing us, too.

In 2019, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks published a statement that identified 14 emerging health and environmental issues. Right near the top of that list was plastic waste. The committee emphasized the “urgent” need “for a better assessment of hazard and risk” associated with exposure to plastics of different shapes and forms.

The Facts About Plastic
During World War II, U.S. plastic production increased by 300 percent. Since then, plastic has become ever more ubiquitous, and by 2014, according to market research firm PlasticsEurope, had surpassed 300 million tons produced per year. There’s a good reason for that. The wondrous nature of plastic is that it’s lightweight, highly malleable, and resistant to biodegradation. It is widely understood that this last property is the root of what has emerged as one of the most intractable environmental problems as the plastic waste piles up around the globe. What is less understood are the exact reasons why.

Plastic is made up almost entirely of hydrocarbon chains, which are an incredibly stable type of molecular bond. In cases where hydrocarbon chains occur naturally, that stability is a necessary component of an organism’s function and generally forms part of a greater ecosystem. Plastics, however, are synthetic, which means they’re no good as a food source for microorganisms (with at least one rare exception) and, as we’ve so tragically come to learn, that is a major problem.

On one hand, there’s the obvious issue of what happens to all that accumulated plastic trash. We all know the answer to that one: It turns into giant islands of floating trash, it goes up into poor turtles’ nostrils, and is found in the stomachs of beached whales. According to a 2022 study published in the online journal Nature Communications, blue whales could be ingesting as much as 10 million pieces of microplastic every day. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Living Earth 2018 report, 90 percent of the world’s seabirds have plastic in their stomachs, a figure that is expected to rise to 99 percent by 2050.

Marauding Microplastics
Over the course of several decades, as plastic is exposed to the elements, it begins to decompose into smaller particles. While this process, known as photooxidation, does not affect plastic on a molecular level, it does eventually break it down to its nanoparticles. If you’re finding that hard to imagine, picture a grocery bag that’s been zapped by a shrink ray: It’s the exact same piece of plastic, only now it’s microscopic.

On the surface, this result may appear to be a good thing. Out of sight, out of mind, right? If only it were that simple. Plastic may actually be at its most threatening once it has broken down to the point it’s invisible to the naked eye because at that point, those little particles can travel a lot faster and further, and into the bodies of animals, including us.

Research conducted by the State University of New York at Fredonia found a significant amount of microplastics in bottled water. To be precise, 10.4 microplastic particles per one liter of water were recorded in a sample of 259 bottles representing 11 major brands across nine countries, including Aquafina, Dasani, Evian, Nestlé Pure Life and San Pellegrino, reflecting twice the amount of plastic found in a previous study using tap water. Researchers suggested the plastic contamination could have partially come from the bottling process.

Avoiding bottled water and sticking to municipal water won’t necessarily solve the problem of ingesting microplastics from drinking water.

Substantial amounts of microplastics” were recently found in tap water and rivers throughout South Africa, according to a recent study conducted by scientists from North-West University. Zoologist Henk Bouwman, a member of the research team, explained that the findings were conclusive, but the implications remain unclear. “There is no consensus yet on any health impacts as the science is still in its infancy,” he told Johannesburg’s Daily Maverick. “It might be benign, and it might not be. There are a whole lot of things we don’t understand at this stage.”

This topic was further explored by National Geographic in a 2018 article. For the piece, Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto, shared her research that found that fish suffered liver damage from ingesting polythene plastic (the kind plastic bags are made of), while oysters exposed to polystyrene tended to produce fewer eggs and less mobile sperm. But this does not necessarily mean humans will suffer the same effects.

Plastics and Human Health
Given the ubiquitousness of microplastics, it’s no surprise that they have infiltrated our bodies too. A breakthrough study published in 2022, using blood donated by members of the general public, found the tiny particles in 80 percent of the samples. A 2023 UK study found that microplastics can pass through blood vessels to vascular tissue, potentially contributing to damage inside the vein. Other studies have shown that they are present in our feces, our lungs, our stomachs and, most worryingly, in placentas.

It is not yet clear what effect this infiltration has on human health.

As the National Geographic article’s author Elizabeth Royte points out, it’s difficult to study the impact of microplastics on human health for a number of reasons. First, there’s the simple fact that “people can’t be asked to eat plastics for experiments.” Extrapolating the findings from fish experiments doesn’t work either, as “plastics and their additives act differently depending on physical and chemical contexts,” as well as the fact that “their characteristics may change as creatures along the food chain consume, metabolize or excrete them.” As a result, notes Royte, “we know virtually nothing about how food processing or cooking affects the toxicity of plastics in aquatic organisms or what level of contamination might hurt us.”

For Rochman, there is no doubt that “there are effects from plastics on animals at nearly all levels of biological organization.” Studies show that in fish, microplastic pollution (MP) causes structural damage and affects metabolic balance, behavior and fertility. In laboratory mice and rats it causes similar biochemical and structure damage.

OK, so we may not have clear evidence on the direct health impacts of microplastics where human beings are concerned, but what about more immediate side effects?

For one, there’s the fact that microplastics are foreign particles entering our bodies. Inflammation, for instance, is a response triggered by the immune system to this sort of invasion, writes Rachel Adams, a senior lecturer in biomedical science at Cardiff Metropolitan University, in The Conversation. Another cause for concern is that these microparticles act as carriers for other toxins entering the body. Toxic metals like mercury and organic pollutants like pesticides are just two examples of hazardous materials that could enter the body attached to plastic particles. They can slowly accumulate over time in our fatty tissue.

Quantifying Harm
“We do not currently have clear evidence that plastic microparticles in drinking water have a negative effect on health,” writes Adams. “But given the effects other particles can have, we urgently need to find out more about plastic microparticles in the body.”

John Meeker, professor of environmental health sciences and global public health at the University of Michigan, concurs. “We first need to figure out how best to measure exposure then document whether people are being exposed, and, if so, how much,” wrote Meeker over email. In order to do this, he continued, scientists need to determine what environmental factors influence exposure levels and “what aspects of microplastics could be most relevant to toxicity—is it size, shape, chemical makeup or additives used in the plastics, or even toxins picked up by the plastic from its surrounding environment?” Once these factors have been established, we can begin to consider how the body processes these plastics, and what effects the various levels of exposure can have on humans over a period of time.

“Once we have found ways to measure exposure in humans, we will then need to conduct cohort studies in various types of populations to look for associations between exposure and various health endpoints,” said Meeker, advising that “these should be done in concert with experimental laboratory studies on toxicity to establish estimates about health risk.” Some efforts have begun in this direction. For example, in 2022 California became the first state in the USA to adopt a state-wide microplastics strategy. Among other actions, the state requires monitoring of microplastics in drinking water and investigate whether it should set a limit on the particles in this water to protect public health.

For the gamblers out there, this lack of scientific certainty at present might seem like an invitation to continue rolling the plastic dice. The potential hazards of microplastic, however, are far from the only cause for concern.

Bothersome BPA and Problematic Phthalates
Modern living has made it so that there’s no escaping contact with plastic—and the various extra chemicals it contains. Take Bisphenol A (BPA), which gives plastic its shape and structure, and the phthalates that make plastic soft and flexible. We end up ingesting a fair amount of these chemicals when plastic comes into contact with our food or even our skin. In turn, this affects our hormone levels, which is why, for the most part, chemicals such as BPA are heavily regulated. There is a growing body of research showing that exposure to industrial chemicals commonly found in plastics may help contribute to metabolic disorders like obesity and diabetes.

Added to this is the concerning fact that an increasing number of these chemicals are being detected in humans. A recent study conducted by the University of Exeter found traces of BPA in over 80 percent of teenagers. Reporting on the study, The Guardian explained how BPA mimics estrogen, and in so doing disrupts the endocrine system, which is responsible for regulating metabolism, growth, sexual function and sleep. But as is the case with microplastics, it is difficult to draw conclusive causal links between BPA and these health impacts due to ethical concerns around testing on humans.

Despite this lack of certainty, there’s enough cause for concern that governments have responded to this plastic plight. Legislation has been passed in Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States restricting or prohibiting the use of phthalates in certain consumer products. According to a paper published by the Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, these moves respond to the “variety of adverse outcomes” caused by the chemical, “including increased adiposity and insulin resistance” as well as “decreased levels of sex hormones, and other consequences for the human reproductive system.”

While it’s important to understand the health impact of plastic, perhaps a more pressing question is what happens when we tell ourselves that plastic is safe—and continue to produce it in ever greater quantities. According to Statista, a market research firm, global plastic production has grown from 50 to 335 million metric tons over the past four decades. Chances are likely that the ultimate consequence of our plastic consumption will be something far greater, and perhaps direr, than our current scientific understanding is able to predict.

Author Bio:
Robin Scher is a contributor to the Observatory and freelance writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @RobScherHimself

Independent Media Institute

Credit Line:

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and originally published by Truthout.

Bookmark and Share

In Chile, Having A Good Constitution Doesn’t Guarantee Social Change

A conversation with Bárbara Navarrete, secretary-general of the Communist Youth of Chile.

“We are a generation totally interested in taking power,” says Bárbara Navarrete, the new secretary-general of the Communist Youth of Chile. This generation came of age with examples such as Gabriel Boric, Chile’s president, who is only 37 years old, and Camila Vallejo, the president’s chief of staff, who is only 35. By constantly engaging in the political arena and reaching the highest levels of the government, people like Boric and Camila—as they are known—“push us to get involved, to take sides,” Navarrete says. Fifty years after the coup that devastated Chile, people like Navarrete oscillate between hope in a government led by former student leaders (such as Boric and Camila) and devastation at the defeat of a new constitution in 2022. They also have to contend with the rise of the right wing, which now holds offices in the legislature, including the presidency of the Senate.

Navarrete’s own story is an example of, in her words, “the crossroads of experiences that affect this new generation in their way of doing politics.” Her family directly experienced the consequences of the dictatorship in a peripheral part of Santiago. Born a few years after the end of the dictatorship, Navarrete learned about politics in the student mobilizations of 2011, while she studied at an important women’s school in the city. For nine months, the students took over the school in protest against Chile’s private education model. Two political tendencies dominated the school—anarchism and communism; Navarrete opted for the latter.

During her time in the student protests, Navarrete says she saw “clearly the institutional alienation” of her generation. They may have grown up after the dictatorship, but they were surrounded by its institutions (including the coup constitution of 1980). “We felt,” she says, “a detachment from laws and institutional culture,” and they were left with a feeling of “incomprehension” toward the institutions’ legitimacy. This resulted, she says, in “an overwhelming need to change everything, including the constitution.”

The Results Are Not Random
Enshrining a new constitution for Chile before the 50th anniversary of the 1973 coup would have been a major achievement. But the draft constitution—produced with immense democratic input—was defeated in the elections on September 4, 2022. In the aftermath of that election, the government set up a committee of experts to produce a new draft that would be approved by 51 members of a constitutional council (elected by direct vote on May 7, 2023). The right-wing Republican Party won 35.4 percent of the vote, which gave it 23 constitutional council members. The Communist Party of Chile headed a coalition that won the second-most votes, with 28.6 percent.

For Navarrete, the victory of the Republican Party “is neither a surprise nor an isolated event.” In the first round of the 2021 presidential elections, the Republican Party’s candidate José Antonio Kast took the lead. “The right has polarized the country,” she said, and it has defined the center-left government of Boric through “caricatures.” A substantial part of Chile, she says, “feels more represented by the positions of the reactionary right” as a result. “This is not a perfect situation,” Navarrete says, but “we can continue to dispute the issues by being present there.”

No Constitution Guarantees Change
“The democratic exercise that is being carried out with respect to the current constitution is, in itself, better than the way the current one was designed,” Navarrete told me, insisting that although constitutional change is important on the road to social change in Chile, it is not the only route. If the draft of the constitution had been approved in September 2022, the material and governmental situation would have altered, “but that, in itself, does not guarantee the transformation of the country,” says Navarrete.

From her point of view, the results of September reflect a profound disagreement or disconnection between the discussions in the constitutional convention—which wrote the rejected draft—and what the left parties had been proposing for the country. The “disconnection” is linked to the nature of the decade-long protest movement and the social agenda that it had tabled. “We ended up convincing ourselves,” Navarrete says, about the lack of this “disconnection,” which was “a mistake that cost us the [electoral approval]” of the new constitution. The gap between the political parties and the social movements has to be closed since it is these movements, she says, which are “the main engine of any transformation of the country.”

Against ‘Denialism’
The Communist Party of Chile is 111 years old. It is part of the government of Boric. This is the fourth time the party is in government; one of the previous times was during the Popular Unity government of President Salvador Allende (1970-73). As Chile goes into a period of commemoration for the 50th anniversary of the coup, Navarrete notes that this would be a good time to reflect on reparations, justice, and a commitment to never return to dictatorship.

The situation in Chile is “fragile,” she says, because there is a growth of “denialism,” the view that nothing really bad happened during the coup and the dictatorship. Laws against denialism have been rejected by the Chilean parliament. “We cannot allow [this discourse] to advance and consolidate,” says Navarrete. “As a government, we have a profound responsibility not to romanticize memory or democracy per se, but to value them as the best conditions for developing politics and making the changes that are needed for those most in need.”

On May 28, Luis Silva, an elected constitutional council member and a member of the Republican Party, declared during an interview with Icare TV that at this historic moment, “a slightly more considered reading” of Augusto Pinochet’s government should be made. “He was a man who knew how to lead the state.”

Regarding these statements, Navarrete alleges that “the right wing believes that based on freedom of expression, all opinions are equally valid.” In contrast, she says, “There is no justification for a genocide of which we were victims as a country and thousands of families. There are people who are still searching for their loved ones.”

Author Bio:

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

Taroa Zúñiga Silva is a writing fellow and the Spanish media coordinator for Globetrotter. She is the co-editor with Giordana García Sojo of Venezuela, Vórtice de la Guerra del Siglo XXI (2020). She is a member of the coordinating committee of Argos: International Observatory on Migration and Human Rights and is a member of the Mecha Cooperativa, a project of the Ejército Comunicacional de Liberación.


Bookmark and Share

Learning From History, If We Dare

Gary M. Feinman

The New Gilded Age, wars along the Russian border, a global pandemic, battles for women’s rights, even the Titanic: history does rhyme with the present. Yet as former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once observed: “If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history.”

That’s something we can realistically change. And if we do, we’ll have an easier time addressing the macro and multiple challenges humanity faces, and finding the pathways to necessary compromises and alliances with people across all borders.

But our blinders and misconceptions about the past constrain the knowledge that we have to plan for a better future. Societies don’t get much out of living memory because the longer-term ramifications from recent decisions generally remain unsettled, and most of the big problems we face are the cumulative products of decades or centuries of the wrong approach to humanity’s histories and transitions. To leverage and learn from humanity’s history regarding what fostered sustainability in the past, we need to know the outcomes.

The good news is that through concerted research in history and archaeology, we now know a great deal more about the different paths that people have taken and their outcomes than we did just fifty years back. Long-term perspectives on cities, states, and empires are now much fuller and more regionally diverse than was known decades ago. Synthetic, comparative analyses have been undertaken. We now know what worked and what did not.

To draw better inferences and learn from past human histories, it is necessary to challenge three pervasive myths, which fundamentally shape not just what we think about the past, but why so many see history as irrelevant when it comes to guiding the present and shaping the future. Each myth is pervasive and entrenched as the ideas and presumptions behind them were born and entangled with the roots of the Western tradition of social sciences, baked into the frameworks through which researchers traditionally study the past.

The first myth supposes that humans in their natural state are nasty, brutish, and self-absorbed, only tamed by the power and coercion of the state. Clearly, humans do have the capacity for great selfishness, but as a species, we also are better cooperators with non-kin than any other animal. This seeming paradox is explicable if we recognize that people are not by nature either uniformly cunning or cuddly, but rather humans, past and present, are capable of both cooperation and selfishness depending on context. Our nature is not one-dimensional. Cooperative behavior is situational; we engage when an individual’s wants dovetail with their larger social network. Lack of alignment short-circuits cooperation whether the network is large or small.

The first supposition or myth undergirds a broadly held second one—that large premodern societies were universally coercive or despotic in organization. Autocratic governance kept the ever-selfish in line, the argument goes. Ancient Athens and republican Rome generally have been categorically distinguished as the unexplained exception to this presumed premodern path, which came to an end just a few centuries ago when ideas from the Classical era were rediscovered, giving rise to The Enlightenment, when Europeans adopted reason, science, democracy, and more.

The latter scenario became the mid-twentieth-century justification for the third myth, the walling off of modernity from the deeper past. Only after the Enlightenment with rational thought could people organize themselves democratically, in forms of governance where voice, power, and resources were not monopolized by a few.

These three myths underlie the severing of deep history, especially non-Western pasts, from the present. Often in the absence of robust historical information, contemporary observations of non-Western peoples were categorically slotted into imagined pasts that led stage-by-stage to modernist Western presents and futures.

Progressive visions of human history spurred research in history, archaeology, and related disciplines. What we have learned over recent decades does not conform with those starting myths and expectations. Change was not linear, nor was it uniform from region to region. Likewise, premodern governance was not consistently despotic, especially in the Indigenous Americas. Yet in every global region, how people governed themselves shifted over time.

When it comes to the past, we also know the outcomes. And, in the region where I study, prehispanic Mesoamerica, cities that were governed more collectively with less concentrated power tended to persist as central places longer than those urban settlements that were ruled more autocratically. A similar pattern, albeit less definitive, was also found for a global sample of states and empires. More in-depth study is necessary, but these historical patterns seem worth investigating in other regions and probing further where they have been documented. The role and success of governance and institutions in facing and meeting the challenges of the past unlock a treasure trove of information that just may guide us toward better futures.

Author Bio:
Gary M. Feinman is an archaeologist and the MacArthur curator of Anthropology, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago


Independent Media Institute

Credit Line:

This article was produced by Human Bridges, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Bookmark and Share

  • About

    Rozenberg Quarterly aims to be a platform for academics, scientists, journalists, authors and artists, in order to offer background information and scholarly reflections that contribute to mutual understanding and dialogue in a seemingly divided world. By offering this platform, the Quarterly wants to be part of the public debate because we believe mutual understanding and the acceptance of diversity are vital conditions for universal progress. Read more...
  • Support

    Rozenberg Quarterly does not receive subsidies or grants of any kind, which is why your financial support in maintaining, expanding and keeping the site running is always welcome. You may donate any amount you wish and all donations go toward maintaining and expanding this website.

    10 euro donation:

    20 euro donation:

    Or donate any amount you like:

    ABN AMRO Bank
    Rozenberg Publishers
    IBAN NL65 ABNA 0566 4783 23
    reference: Rozenberg Quarterly

    If you have any questions or would like more information, please see our About page or contact us:
  • Like us on Facebook

  • Archives